Friday, August 24, 2012

D&D Encounters: Web of the Spider Queen (and a short essay on the drow)

I'll admit it: I've never seen the appeal of the drow.

I've never found them particularly compelling or alluring. It's never made sense to me why so many D&D players are so fascinated by them. It's at least partially the fault of R.A. Salvatore, whose mediocre but prolific fiction thrust the drow into a spotlight in the late 1980s that they haven't relinquished since then.

And they've certainly made their mark on the game. Every group has their Drow Guy, who insists on playing a dark elf for every character, who has drow lore memorized, and who's approaching fluency in Undercommon. They've become an iconic villain of the game, nearly as notorious as the titular Dragons themselves. But the drow have become so ubiquitous, so overused--so mainstream, the hipster gamer in me wants to say--that they're not even interesting anymore.

We have a stridently matriarchal, capriciously evil, underground-dwelling, spider-worshiping society of dark elves with magical powers over light and darkness... and somehow, that's become cliche. Yet, a sizable and vocal population of D&D players continue to adore all things drow. So it was only a matter of time before we got the Drow Season of Encounters.

My Character

As a player, I have a mild dislike of the drow. What if, I decided, I made a character who well and truly despised the drow? Thus was born Molgar, Seer of the Deep, a svirfneblin druid whose tribe of peace-loving, fungus-eating deep gnomes was utterly destroyed by a band of drow raiders. The only survivors of the raid were Molgar and his trusty she-wolf Josephine, who escaped to the surface and vowed revenge against the drow.

Molgar ended up being one of those characters whose conception was much more interesting than his implementation. It was my "turn" to play in the leader role, so I went with the druid, a class I liked in 3rd Edition and hadn't gotten around to playing in 4th yet. Unfortunately, I didn't realize two things when I picked the druid class. First, the sentinel druid (the "leader build" of druid) really wants to be a striker, but because it's nominally a leader, it has a few heals and a few simple buffs. The result is a class that lacks a fully developed role in combat: not as good a healing leader as the cleric, not as good a tactical leader as the warlord, and not as good a damage-dealer as any striker.

Second, the sentinel druid is an Essentials build. I've realized over the last three or four seasons of Encounters that I do not like Essentials builds. They value simplicity over personalization and customization, and they don't let you do enough different interesting things in combat.

A third thing I realized as I played Molgar is that I'm not a fan of how the animal companion mechanics work. Josephang (as she was quickly and cleverly nicknamed by the rest of the party) was porcelain-fragile, and as soon as she went down in any given battle, my ability to both lead and strike suffered tremendously.

So, while Molgar had his moments, he was probably the last Essentials character I'll play. And out of all the leader-role classes I've played or seen played, none of them really match the cleric or warlord in terms of healing or tactical prowess.

The Season

Hopefully my anti-drow bias didn't subconsciously influence my opinion, but this wasn't one of the better Encounters seasons I've played. Drow showed up in literally every encounter but one. When the same enemies are part of every encounter, the same mechanics are part of every encounter, and they get stale. (If I never have to hear the phrase "he drops a cloud of darkness" again, that would be completely fine by me.)

Worse, nearly the entire season took place in the same subterranean tunnels, making this the least "interactive" season of Encounters I think I've played. As a player who values the "interaction" pillar of D&D nearly as much as the "exploration" pillar (and perhaps even more than the "combat" pillar), that came as a disappointment. Essentially, the season played out as
  • an extended dungeon crawl
  • in an organized-play system that already under-emphasizes roleplaying
  • within a version of D&D not exactly known for its attention to the out-of-combat game.
Dungeon crawls can be cool, if there's lots of interesting stuff to do in the dungeon--places to explore, decisions to make, creatures to encounter. Or they can be tedious when all the rooms look the same, and the same monster lurks behind every door.

Final Thoughts (and Outlook)

While neither the theme nor execution of this past season was terribly exciting, the season demonstrated an important silver lining about D&D (and any RPG, tabletop or computer): the party makes all the difference in the world. We have a surprisingly solid and coherent group of Encounters "regulars" at Eudemonia, and because it's Encounters, you never know who is going to show up. Maybe it's a couple of awesome eighth-graders. Maybe it's your girlfriend. But it makes for a fun, low-leverage game, and if your poor wolf dies in two hits this week, she'll be tearing into dudes again next week.

Next season: Drow Season Part II. I will be playing an actual drow character for the first time in my D&D history.